Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: Novak Djokovic is one of the best losers in professional sport.
Few sports stars can walk off court following a comprehensive defeat then enter the press conference room shortly after and be as insightful as Djokovic is.
Wednesday was no exception.
He was willing to share his feelings of self-doubt, talk about his troubling dip in form and admit that he has no specific plan as of yet to bounce back.
The world No2 lost 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to 23-year-old Dominic Thiem in the Roland Garros quarter-finals on Wednesday, conceding his first ‘bagel’ in a Grand Slam match since 2005.
This time last year, Djokovic had just won four Grand Slam titles in a row, becoming the first man to achieve that feat since the legendary Rod Laver in 1969.
Over the past 12 months, Djokovic has been unable to defend any of those four Majors and with more questions than answers to his current predicament.
While he has managed to perform well in the last few weeks, he remains far from his best and his inconsistency from one match to another is probably what is the most alarming.
Djokovic will have 5805 points on Monday, which is unofficially his lowest points total since June 2007. Exactly a decade.— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) June 7, 2017
The warrior-like Djokovic was nowhere to be seen against Thiem in Paris, even though the Serb entered that match up with a 5-0 record against the No6 seed, including a 6-1, 6-0 drubbing in Rome last month.
“It’s hard to comment (on) the third set. Obviously nothing was going my way and everything his way. Just a pretty bad set,” was all Djokovic could say about that ‘bagel’ Thiem served him.
“He deserved to win. He was definitely the better player on the court today.”
Those very two same players faced off in the semi-finals at Roland Garros last year but it was Djokovic who came through in straight sets easily.
A lot has changed for both competitors ever since and Djokovic knows it.
“More or less all the parts of my game are kind of going up and down. I’m feeling like I’m missing consistency. I play a great match or two in a row, and then I play a completely opposite match. That’s what happened today,” explained the 12-time Grand Slam champion.
“It comes and goes. As an athlete you have to accept that and get used to it. I’m aware of where I am at the moment. I know where I also can be. So I’m working towards that.”
He just started working with Andre Agassi two weeks ago, but still, is a break from the sport worth considering? He doesn’t know but he has not ruled it out.
“Trust me, I’m thinking about many things, especially in the last couple months,” Djokovic admits.
“I’m just trying to sense what’s the best thing for me now. Obviously there has been a lot of changes with the team and so forth. I’m so excited to work with Andre and the new team. At the same time, I have responsibility to the game itself, towards others. We’ll see.
“Obviously it’s not an easy decision to make, but I will see how I feel, anyway, after Roland Garros and then decide what to do next.”
On June 12, Novak Djokovic will not be No. 1 or No. 2 in Emirates #ATP Rankings for first time since March 20, 2011 (325 consecutive weeks).— ATP Media Info (@ATPMediaInfo) June 7, 2017
Djokovic is unspecific when he tries to discuss what the biggest thing is missing from his game right now. He says it’s “technical stuff” and general inconsistency.
But his mentality must be a factor as well. Would a break from the game help? Skipping the grass season doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, especially that he’s only defending third round points at the All England Club and he only typically plays one event on the surface, with no Wimbledon tune-ups.
He could fly to Nevada where Agassi lives and just spend quality time training with him there then take on the North American hard court swing.
It’s true that the four-week break Djokovic took in February did not help him much but perhaps a break while being coached by Agassi would be different.
Agassi left Paris before Djokovic’s fourth round match and wasn’t in the stands on Sunday nor Wednesday. A reporter asked the Serb if his coach’s absence made a different against Thiem but Djokovic immediately rejected that theory.
“Don’t put Andre in the midst of this. This final set, of course, that’s all me,” he assures.
It is ridiculous to suggest that Agassi can make that big of a difference after only working with Djokovic for a total of seven days on court. It remains a good idea to work with the American eight-time Major champion but it will be key to spend enough time together to get Djokovic back on track. Hiring a full-time coach as well for the day-to-day grind of the tour must be high on his priority list.
A year ago, Djokovic had won four straight Slams and made 23 of 24 Slam SFs.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 7, 2017
All four titles go undefended, only once reaching SFs. #rg17
For now, Djokovic is clinging onto a positive perspective and dismisses the notion that he may have lost all motivation after completing the Career Grand Slam last year in Paris.
“It’s an opportunity for me, in a way, some kind of lesson to be learned and to kind of progress in whatever way life wants me to,” he said philosophically.
“So I’m just figuring it all out and trying to be in the moment. Obviously I love this sport. I’m motivated as any other player on the tour. Even though I have played for many years, I still want to do well.”
Djokovic will drop out of the top-two in the world rankings for the first time since 2011 and Doha is the only title he has won in the last 10 months.
“For me, it’s a whole new situation that I’m facing, you know, especially in the last seven, eight months, not winning any tournament, which hasn’t happened in many years,” he adds.
The 30-year-old insists getting back to his best form is something he is motivated to achieve.
“It’s a big challenge, but I’m up for it,” he says.
Against Thiem, Djokovic hit a shocking 35 unforced errors compared to just 18 winners. He faced 15 break points and dropped serve six times against the young Austrian.
21 of Djokovic’s errors came off the backhand – a shot that is usually one of his biggest strengths.
“It was not there for me today, especially in the second part of the match. You know, I was just unable to hit the ball well and many unforced errors. And he was just getting better and better and more confident as the match progressed. That was the case,” he admits.
“If first set went my way, who knows? Maybe the game would change. But that’s sport. That’s how it goes.”
The worrying part for Djokovic is that there is potentially more than one problem to attend to – his tennis, his mentality, his team…
The good news however is that he’s willing to figure it out and not throwing in the towel.
“At the US Open, I just was emotionally very flat and found myself in a situation that I hadn’t faced before in the professional tennis career. It’s obviously tough to get out of it and figure out the way how to move ahead. At least I’m trying,” he concludes.
Rafael Nadal is bracing himself for yet another tough battle against Austrian Dominic Thiem when the pair face off for a fourth time this season in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Friday.
After reaching a record 10th French Open semi-final on Wednesday courtesy of a retirement from his fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, Nadal told reporters in Paris all the reasons Thiem has been a rising force in the men’s game.
“He’s a very good player. He hits the ball very hard. He’s very powerful on both sides. Forehand, backhand, serve. These weapons are quite good. He steps in the court. He has huge potential to tap, and he can hit the ball very hard. He doesn’t give you a lot of options. I will have to play deep balls. You have to put him in uncomfortable situations,” said Nadal, who beat Thiem in Barcelona and Madrid but lost to the Austrian in Rome last month.
“In Rome it was not a good day for me. I was not in a position to play well the way I wanted to. He put me in a difficult situation, so it’s up to me to avoid being put in uncomfortable situations.”
Nadal has dropped just 22 games en route to the semi-finals – the fewest he has ever lost at Roland Garros on his way to the last-four.
Asked if he would rather have been tested more this tournament ahead of his Thiem clash, Nadal said: “Is always the same, no? If it’s too much, is too much. If it’s less, is less. I am in semi-finals. That’s all. I am in semi-finals and with very positive feelings. I played well all the matches here. The rest of the things, you never know. So it’s difficult to say. Better, worse? I want to be in that position. That’s all,” said the 31-year-old.
The Spaniard leads the tour with 41 wins this season, and also owns a tour-leading 22 match victories on clay in 2017.
Carreno Busta, who was playing his first career Grand Slam quarter-final, pulled a left abdominal muscle while serving at 2-5 in the first set and was forced to retire from the match three games later.
Why is Nadal such a good wind player?— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) June 7, 2017
"Is about accept the mistakes and accept the tough things that can happen during the match," he says.
Nadal is just the fifth man in the Open Era to reach 10 semi-finals at the same Grand Slam. Both him and Thiem are yet to drop a set this fortnight and their showdown on Friday is being described as a virtual final.
The 23-year-old Thiem has made it to his second consecutive Roland Garros semi-final by avenging his defeat to Novak Djokovic, who had beaten the Austrian in the last-four here in 2016.
Thiem, seeded No6 in Paris this fortnight, delivered a knockout punch to the no-longer defending champion Djokovic 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 in the quarters on Wednesday.
“He has really heavy spin. You know, he can also play very quick. He’s got an all-around game. For clay courts, he’s a tough player to play against,” said Djokovic of Thiem.
There are 127 matches played in a Grand Slam singles main draw with millions of possible combinations of match-ups, yet somehow Timea Bacsinszky and Jelena Ostapenko share the same birthday and will face off on the day of their birthday in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Thursday, June 8, 2017.
That is one mind-boggling coincidence.
Even nuttier… If Ostapenko wins the title, it would be her very first tour-level title triumph. The last player to win their first tour-level trophy at a Grand Slam was Guga Kuerten. When did he achieve that? On June, 8, 1997 – the day Ostapenko was born! (via @fiercetennis on Twitter, heard through @benrothenberg).
Crazy twists of fate aside, the fact that we have a 19-year-old in the semi-finals of Roland Garros for the first time since Ana Ivanovic in 2007 is great news.
The stories developing this fortnight on the women’s side are really interesting if you’re following closely.
Ostapenko, a fiery, quirky Latvian teenager who is not on her best surface but has a big, aggressive game, is the second-youngest player in the top-47 (Ana Konjuh is six months younger). A couple of her fellow 1997-born players have perhaps had better results sooner than her at the Slams but she has caught up and gone even further. Prior to this season, she had played six Grand Slam main draws and lost in the first or second round in all of them.
In Melbourne last January, she made the Australian Open third round and she’s now in the Roland Garros semi-finals. That is just remarkable progress.
Anything in particular you need to know about Ostapenko? She likes ballroom dancing and her favourite dance is the Samba. “I actually think because of the music, because some really nice songs fit Samba,” she tells us.
She certainly needed quick footwork to handle the terrible wind that wreaked havoc on her quarter-final with Caroline Wozniacki on Tuesday. Those ballroom dancing classes sure came in handy.
Meanwhile Bacsinszky is continuing with her dream return to the sport. The Swiss had quit tennis, worked in a restaurant at a hotel, but returned with a bang, making the semis at Roland Garros two years ago. She was playing her third consecutive French Open quarter-final on Tuesday and is now into her second semi in three years.
She finds the fact that she’ll be playing Ostapenko on the day of their birthdays fairly amusing.
“It’s pretty funny. I think it’s pretty cool, though. I saw her in the gym just right after our matches today, and so we both said, like, mutually to each other, Well done. We hugged each other, because, I mean, she’s a really nice girl,” said Bacsinszky, who is eight years older than Ostapenko.
Rain canceled the men’s quarter-finals on Tuesday. Here’s what you may have missed from the women’s action.
Winners cracked by Jelena Ostapenko vs. Wozniacki on clay this year:— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) June 6, 2017
Roland Garros: 38
10 – years since a teenager last made the semi-finals at Roland Garros prior to Ostapenko’s run this fortnight.
“Players are ready. Please sit as quickly as you can.”
— A hilarious Timea Bacsinszky pretends she’s an umpire for a second as she waits for reporters to take their seats for her press conferences.
— The brilliant follow up to Bacsinszky’s line from press conference moderator Eleanor Preston.
“You mean in the ballroom dancing? No, of course not. I was just doing some, like, Latin championships in ballroom dancing. And I think the courts I play are much bigger.”
— Ostapenko when asked if her ballroom dancing competitions as a youngster helped prepare her for the big stage in tennis.
“Stan works a lot. He falls, he gets up. He falls, he gets up. But recently he has decided not to fall.”
— Bacsinszky on Stan Wawrinka
Alize Lim attempts to interview Rafael Nadal